Virginia Eyes – Pun Intended – Defensive Improvement

Virginia
Virginia assistant coach Curome Cox said defense begins by trusting what you see. ~ Photo by Kris Wright/TheSabre.com

Virginia football fans that watched the defense last season likely experienced a range of emotions. Those emotions probably – understatement alert – trended to the frustrated end of the spectrum. New Wahoo assistant Chris Slade, a fan watching from afar himself last season, called it embarrassing at times.

Understandably.

Out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, the Cavaliers ranked 103rd (tie) in points allowed at 31.8 and 121st in total defense at 466.0 yards per game allowed. They were 88th in pass defense at 240.2 yards per game allowed and 123rd in run defense at 225.83 yards per game allowed. The defense wasn’t particularly opportunistic either, rating 93rd (tie) in take-aways with 14, 113th (tie) in sacks with 18, 121st (tie) in tackles for loss with 52, and 88th in third down defense with 40.99% allowed conversions.

Really, aside from red zone defense where UVA allowed just 76.47% scoring conversions (27th) and just a 50.98% touchdown rate (23rd), there simply wasn’t much to celebrate on defense.

“Whenever Virginia took the field, I’m part of that no matter what,” Slade said. “It was embarrassing I thought.”

That’s the past, of course, and a lot has changed. Bronco Mendenhall resigned and most of the defensive staff, including co-coordinators Nick Howell (Vanderbilt) and Kelly Poppinga (Boise State), moved on to new jobs elsewhere. New Virginia coach Tony Elliott brought in John Rudzinski from Air Force along with some other assistants, including Slade himself who left the high school ranks in Georgia. Rudzinski led the Falcons to a top 20 scoring defense in each of the last three seasons.

Now, Virginia fans have one bottom line question: how can he fix the defense?

Conversations can quickly diverge on that front for fans. Tackling. Be more physical. Coverage. More speed. Stop the run. Better angles. Attitude. And so on.

For Curome Cox, who came with Rudzinski from Air Force and is the defensive backs coach plus the passing game coordinator for UVA, it starts with something smaller than of that. Cox was a standout defensive back at Maryland and went on to the NFL for three seasons. To him, the key – or the fix if you will – starts with something simpler.

The eyes.

What do you see?

That’s it. A defender must be able to quickly decipher what he sees, make the proper decision or adjustment, and then play to that without hesitation.

“We talk about it a lot. It’s a camera,” Cox said. “The first thing the camera does when you turn it on, it scans out – look at the whole formation. It zooms in – now what’s going to tell me run or pass. What’s it do right before it takes a picture – it focuses. We teach them that eye progression so now they know where should my eyes be and they’re good to go. … What they realize is the game slows down so much when you see the right things.”

When asked how to dial in that concentration for players, Cox indicated that it’s less about distraction and more about fighting doubt. If an offense lines up and a defensive player is trying to spin through a rolodex of possibilities under the pressure of a forthcoming snap that’s essentially a countdown clock? Well, that can lead to frozen defenders.

It’s not all that different than someone on Family Feud during the Fast Money round being unable to think of a seemingly easy answer in a matter of seconds. Put another way: paralysis by analysis.

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